TEDxUCLA 2019: Time

Why is physical education a student’s most important subject?


About William

William Edward “Bill” Simon Jr. is a Partner of Simon Quick Advisors, a firm that provides wealth management, investment consulting, and family office services to its clients.

Prior to becoming a partner at Simon Quick Advisors, he was Co-Chairman of William E. Simon & Sons, L.L.C. an investment firm that he co-founded in 1988 with his brother, Peter, and their father, William E. Simon, Sr., former U.S. Secretary of the Treasury.

Simon earned a BA from Williams College in 1973, and a JD from Boston College in 1982.


Let’s start with a pop quiz. Can you name the only subject in school that promotes physical and emotional health, helps children learn better, and cultivates the character that they need to be productive adults?

I think some people out there got an A. It’s physical education. I believe that physical education should be a core subject, just like math, English, science, and history.

But that’s not the way it works today. All too often, PE is treated as the least important subject versus the most important subject, which is how it should be. Children need to succeed of course in academic subjects, and by the way, exercise helps them do better in academic subjects. But principles of health and fitness, they are vital in the truest sense of that word. Literally, the students’ lives depend upon it.

Think about it. If a student has trouble with math, maybe they won’t be such good budgeters. If a student has trouble confusing an adjective with an adverb, maybe they won’t be a great author. Or maybe they don’t understand the workings of a cell, they may not be a good biologist. But if a student doesn’t understand the principles of health and fitness, they risk chronic disease and an early death.

So my vision is that every school should provide every student with the opportunities that’ll give them a healthy start in life and also with the education and skills that’ll give them a fit lifetime.

Unfortunately in today’s school system there are not adequate resources that are devoted to physical education, whether it’s because of competing priorities or whether it’s because they undervalue physical education. The median annual budget for physical education in schools, for an entire school, is $764 for the whole school, for all children. That boils down literally to pennies per pupil.

Now there’s plenty of money for PE. It’s a matter of priorities. It’s not a matter of resources. My wife Cindy and I 20 years ago tried to address this issue and change the narrative about physical education. We started a program that’s now called UCLA Health Sound Body Sound Mind. As we put physical fitness equipment in schools, we have a curriculum, we have training for physical education teachers. Today we’re in 151 schools. We impact over 185,000 children every year.

We know the problem and the solution. And there’s a lot more to be done, locally, nationally, and even globally. We know that robust physical education helps children become better learners, better versions of themselves, and better people for tomorrow.

Now I know the transformative impact of exercise, both professionally and personally. This is our son Willie. He has autism. He’s 31 years old. He’s thriving in a residential home. He works at Home Depot, as you can see. He paints amazing seascapes.

It wasn’t always that way. For many years he struggled with behavioral issues. My wife and I were concerned about his weight, which had soared to over 220 pounds. That’s a lot for even a six-footer like Willie.

Then six years ago, a wise member of Willie’s care team said, “Let’s have Willie do some exercise.” And he went on a treadmill, in the beginning 20 minutes. Now he’s ramped up to two hours a day. He runs in local races. I’ve tried to run a few with him. I can’t keep up with him. The results have been spectacular.

Willie was diagnosed at the age of three, and for the last 20 years he has been on meds and therapy of some kind. But I’m here to tell you, ladies and gentlemen, that the best therapy, the best med he’s ever had, is exercise. (applause)

Now there’s compelling evidence that exercise helps your bodies and brains. First, with respect to academic outcomes, the Institute of Medicine found that reading and math are the subjects that are most impacted by exercise. They also found that reading and math require a good executive function, and they also found that there is a link between a good executive function and exercise. Even moderate exercise seems to help quite a bit.

In Neuroscience Magazine, a study reported that a group of nine-year-olds were given cognitive tasks, and they, in some instances, they walked beforehand. And what happened was there was significant improvement in their performance versus when they didn’t walk beforehand.

In Naperville, Illinois, eighth graders were given a math test. In cases where they had 30 minutes of vigorous exercise, they performed 11 to 22 percent better. It’s clear. Even a moderate amount of exercise goes a long way. So if you had just a slight change in priorities, a slight change in resources, there would be a substantial change in learning by our students.

Dr. John Ratey, a Harvard neuroscientist, explains why this is so. He says exercise releases a cascade of neurochemicals and other growth factors that bolster the brain’s infrastructure. Dr. Ratey said exercise is Miracle-Gro for the brain.

He said there are basically three reasons for this. First, exercise optimizes your mindset, improving your alertness and your motivation. Second, exercise helps cells bind together, which is a way that the brain holds information. And third, exercise actually helps create new nerve cells in the hippocampus, which is the center for learning and memory. Exercise, it turns out, helps the brain structures in many many ways.

Let’s talk about mental health. You saw what happened with our son Willie. The Mayo Clinic did a study where they found that endorphins that are released upon exercise, you know they’re the brain’s neurotransmitters and the feel-good effect, it has an impact on mild cases of depression and anxiety. Turns out that exercise is a low-cost, effective, natural way to deal with life’s stressors.

Think about socially. These days, many of us spend a lot of time on screens, particularly students. There’s a lot of loneliness that scientists are finding right now. Exercise addresses that social aspect, and the maturation by having other people to work out with. So we have found more and more research on covering how exercise helps the body, the mind, and the emotions.

So we should consider as well what happens when there, there is no exercise. Inactivity is dangerous and widespread to the point that Lancet Journal, which is a respected British medical journal, has called inactivity the new smoking.

Now it’s clear that inactivity is a core cause of obesity. There’s others, whether it’s a sedentary lifestyle, whether it’s the undervaluing of physical exercise, whether it’s urban living, whether it’s safety factors. One thing is clear: that the incidence of obesity has exploded. It’s doubled amongst children since the 1980s. During that same period, amongst adolescents it’s tripled.

A third of American children today are overweight. Fourteen million American children are obese. Fourteen million. That is unacceptable.

The impacts of obesity are profoundly disturbing. The World Health Organization characterized several. They said that obese children tend to be bullied at school; they have low self-esteem; they generally underperform in the classroom; and they have poor employment prospects as adults, not to mention that the diseases that they become susceptible to, including hypertension, diabetes 2. These are two ailments that used to be confined to adults. No longer.

Did you know that the Centers for Disease Control reported out that 40 percent of cancers are linked to obesity? 40 percent. Studies have shown that childhood obesity inevitably leads to adult obesity. Sadly it appears that this generation of young people is likely to have a shorter lifespan for the first time than their parents.

Public health visionary Dr. Jonathan Fielding has said, and I paraphrase: “The results are in. Younger people are not working out. They are in danger. It’s a it’s a pathway to chronic disease and early death.” He said, shockingly, 19-year-olds get no more exercise than 60-year-olds. Now ladies and gentlemen, I’m 68. Sixty’s in my rearview mirror. Normally, I’d like to be compared to a 19-year-old, but not today.

And if this picture isn’t scary enough, the financial consequences are quite high. Johns Hopkins researchers submitted a report that basically said if you take all children between the ages of eight and eleven, put them on a program of regular exercise, 25 minutes, three times a week, which by the way is 20 percent of what is the recommended amount, the savings will be 62.3 billion dollars over the course of their lifetimes, whether it be in lost wages or in medical expenses.

So we’re looking at a massive health crisis. What’s the solution? Well clearly one solution is schools. Why is that? Well that’s where the children are. That’s where the purpose is to train and to educate. I call physical education class the low-hanging fruit on the fitness tree. Children deserve to be literate in physical fitness just like they do in English or math. They deserve to understand the roles that nutrition and fitness play.

And it’s not just confined to your bodies. It also has to do with cognitive achievement, mental and emotional health. And again, studies have shown that students who take physical education are more likely to be out, to be active outside of physical education class. That will set a firm foundation for fitness as they go into adulthood.

A special area of concern is low-income schools. Children’s Defense Fund study found that children in low-income neighborhoods are nine times more likely to be overweight. We know that in low-income neighborhoods there’s relatively few safe playspaces, few affordable healthy food options. Organized sports? Very expensive. So it may be realistically that physical education in lower-income neighborhoods is the only realistic chance for those students to get any exercise.

You know I think what strikes me most is that physical education class is the only class that benefits the body, the mind, and the spirit. This is not breaking news. This is ancient wisdom, all the way up to the present, that there is a fundamental connection between body, mind, and spirit. This is a timeless concept that’s being ignored today in the educational establishment.

Exercise teaches, exercise is good for your body, but it also teaches resilience and perseverance and a host of other character traits that are necessary for a life well lived. Physical education class is a practice field where these character traits can be honed and developed.

To have our children reach their highest potential, it’s the adults in the room that need to make the best decisions for them. In the United States, we enjoy one of the highest standards of living in the world. Surely there’s a way to provide this gift for our children.

It’s not a matter of resources, it’s a matter of priorities. We did it in the 1960s when our schools rallied around the call of President Kennedy for a fit nation. And we could do it again. President Kennedy said, “Fitness is a vital prerequisite for America’s fullest realization of its potential.” It was then, and it is today.

So let me leave you with a couple of thoughts. It’s well settled in law and in the constitutions of many states that education is a fundamental right. Shouldn’t physical education be a fundamental right? What if physical education was required in every school, in every grade, in every year, for every child? What if physical education was considered the most important subject in school?

If we really care about our children and their future, shouldn’t we do more? I know what our son Willie would say. Thank you.